Our parsha discusses the making of the special scented oil for anointing the utensils of the Mikdash and the incense used as part of the service (Shemot 30:22-38). The prominence of these mixtures testifies to the special significance of the sense of smell in the Torah; another expression of this importance is the requirement to make a blessing on fragrances.
ENJOYMENT OF THE SOUL
While the blessings on enjoyments are technically of Rabbinic origin, our Sages suggest a Biblical source for the obligation to make a blessing on pleasing fragrances. The verse “All the soul shall praise God” (Tehillim 150:6) teaches us that there is a praise of G-d which belongs to the soul alone. The Talmud asks, “What is it that provides enjoyment for the soul, but not for the body? Fragrance” (Berakhot 43b).
At the simplest level, the statement that smell benefits the soul and not the body means that smell does not fulfill any bodily need and does not become part of the body – unlike food and drink. For this reason, we could think that it is not a real or substantial enjoyment, and does not require a blessing. That is why a Biblical source (or hint) for the obligation is required.
Yet our Sages seem to be indicating a positive trait of scent – that it, uniquely, is the enjoyment of the soul – and not just the negative trait that it is not the enjoyment of the body. (After all, when food is tasted without bodily enjoyment there is no blessing – SA OC 210:2.) Smell seems to have a special connection to the spirit.
In secular culture also, smell represents to us the essence and innerness of the object. (Indeed, the word “essence’ is used to refer to a scent.) It is what remains when the object itself is gone. When all appears well, we may express our instinctive feeling of unease by saying that something “smells funny”. “The eye can be deceived, but the nose knows.”
Smell is also considered the most evocative, the most inner, and the most primitive of our senses. Not only does it penetrate the innerness of the object, it also penetrates to our own innerness.
So of all our senses, smell creates the most direct connection between the innerness of the object we perceive and our own inner selves. While the body appreciates decoration, the enjoyment of the soul is to encounter something directly, as it truly is.
A SMELL WITH NO SOURCE
Blessings on enjoyments are not on the sense of pleasure itself but rather on the object which gives us enjoyment. Since material enjoyments are ultimately gifts from HaShem, these blessings are in effect an acknowledgment of the spiritual aspect of the material world. Coarse matter becomes the medium for HaShem to give us enjoyment and uplifting, and thereby a medium for us to strengthen our connection to Him.
Without this encounter with reality, there is no occasion for a berakha, and indeed it is a grave transgression to say a blessing in vain, without any tangible object of blessing. Such a “berakha levatala” suggests a partition or separation between G-d and His world.
The idea that a blessing must connect us with the spiritual within the material is reflected in the rule that no berakha is said on a “reiach sheain lo ikar” – a fragrance which has no present and tangible source (SA OC 216:6, 217:3). The berakha is meant to connect us to the world, not to detach us from it by closing us up in a cocoon of mere sensation (see Kuzari III:16).
SMELL AND MOSHIACH
Rav Nachman of Breslav points out various sources in which the Moshiach is associated with the sense of smell. Yirmiyahu refers to the Moshiach as the “breath of our noses” (Eichah 4:24). And the word “Moshiach” itself means literally “anointed”, referring to the fragrant oil used to anoint a Jewish king. We could add that one sign of the true Moshiach is that he will be able to “smell and judge” – to determine the guilt and innocence of defendants by directly sensing their inner nature (Sanhedrin 93b).
In turn, Rav Nachman shows how scent, as the innerness of objects which remains even when the object is gone, is a metaphor for the holiness immanent in the material world. Just as scent remains in a vessel even after the perfume has been emptied out, so HaShem’s presence remains in the world even though He has partially removed Himself.
So mankind’s physiological ability to instinctively apprehend objects through their scent is a metaphor and a parallel of our spiritual ability to instinctively apprehend the remnants of G-dliness which inhere in our material world. This ability is limited at this stage of history, but we can develop it by living a spiritual existence and constantly focusing on the G-dly aspect of everything. Soon we will be able to greet the Moshiach, who will instantly and perfectly perceive the spiritual aspect of everything, and transmit his knowledge to mankind.
This is one reason why we make a special point of blessing on spices as Shabbat goes out. Then we have a heightened expectation of greeting Eliyahu who will herald the arrival of Moshiach (Likutei Halakhot, Laws of blessings on Smell).
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.